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Am J Physiol. 1999 Jan;276(1 Pt 1):L197-206.

Divergent differentiation paths in airway smooth muscle culture: induction of functionally contractile myocytes.

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  • 1Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois 60637, USA.


We tested the hypothesis that prolonged serum deprivation would allow a subset of cultured airway myocytes to reacquire the abundant contractile protein content, marked shortening capacity, and elongated morphology characteristic of contractile cells within intact tissue. Passage 1 or 2 canine tracheal smooth muscle (SM) cells were grown to confluence, then serum deprived for up to 19 days. During serum deprivation, two differentiation pathways emerged. One-sixth of the cells developed an elongated morphology and aligned into bundles. Elongated myocytes contained cables of contractile myofilaments, dense bodies, gap junctions, and membrane caveoli, ultrastructural features of contractile SM in tissue. These cells immunostained intensely for SM alpha-actin, SM myosin heavy chain (MHC), and SM22 (an SM-specific actin-binding protein), and Western analysis of culture lysates disclosed 1.8 (SM alpha-actin)-, 7.7 (SM MHC)-, and 5.8 (SM22)-fold protein increases during serum deprivation. Immunoreactive M3 muscarinic receptors were present in dense foci distributed throughout elongated, SM MHC-positive myocytes. ACh (10(-3) M) induced a marked shortening (59.7 +/- 14.4% of original length) in 62% of elongated myocytes made semiadherent by gentle proteolytic digestion, and membrane bleb formation (a consequence of contraction) occurred in all stimulated cells that remained adherent and so did not shorten. Cultured airway myocytes that did not elongate during serum deprivation instead became short and flattened, lost immunoreactivity for contractile proteins, lacked the M3 muscarinic-receptor expression pattern seen in elongated cells, and exhibited no contractile response to ACh. Thus we demonstrate that prolonged serum deprivation induces distinct differentiation pathways in confluent cultured tracheal myocytes and that one subpopulation acquires an unequivocally functional contractile phenotype in which structure and function resemble contractile myocytes from intact tissue.

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